History Soothes the Heaviness of Guilt

18.06.2024
Berlinde De Bruyckere. City of Refuge III (2024)

“Venice is like Disneyland”, a gondolier said to me while taking me on a ride through the iconic canals. He was dressed in a blue and white striped shirt, with a beige coloured boater hat decorated with a lilac polyester ribbon, like he just jumped out of a cartoon, a caricature of his own culture. “No one is going to live here in a few years”. The guilt of being a tourist in Venice bloomed in my chest.

When you walk out of the Santa Lucia train station in Venice the first thing you probably see are the words “Foreigners Everywhere”. You might look around and think yes, there are foreigners everywhere. Wherever you go, the colourful advertisement for the Venice Biennale stands before you: Foreigners Everywhere. In Venice guilt prevails and foreigners are everywhere. I’m not so sure how to deal with that. Just to make the guilt of being in Venice a little bit bigger, the restaurant-cafe at the Biennale uses a point system to show how much Co2 each item on the menu gives off. The exotic fruit salad has five out of five points. At the end of each day, the trash is filled with fruit salads that no one buys in an act to save the world. 

Such a system should perhaps be used for guilt as well. Germany gets five points just as the exotic fruit salad, with Israeli artist Yael Bartana showcasing a utopian work on travelling to an alien state in search of a better life. The Danish pavilion has been changed to Kalaallit Nunaat (the original name of Greenland before Icelandic Viking Eiríkur the Red decided to change it), with Greenlandic artist Inuuteq Storch exhibiting a series of hotographs on life in his home country. The show itself is beautiful, yet it fails to erase Denmark's decades long history of colonisation of the country - colonialism that is still actively present , and as a result, palpable guilt remains. The Israeli pavilion is closed, a soldier stationed outside it. This year's exhibition from Israel is called Motherland and you can see it through the window. Rumour has it people have been let in through the back. Russia is nowhere to be seen as they have given their pavilion to Bolivia. Some say an act of generosity, some say a way to get access to Bolivian lithium mines. As previously stated, the title of this year's Venice Biennale is Foreigners Everywhere. Most of the works and exhibitions are on ideas of “the other” touching on themes such as migration, colonialism, as well as the experience of queer individuals and immigrants. This year's group exhibition focuses on artists from the Earth's southern hemisphere, mainly from South America and Africa. In a city visited by up to 110.000 tourists per day (compared to the 45.000 that live there), the title Foreigners Everywhere becomes a bit ironic, as there are indeed foreigners everywhere in the city. With the confusing title in mind as you walk through the group exhibition, a certain confirmation arises as the 331 artists in the show, mainly from the southern hemisphere, are indeed the foreigners. 

Going back to the heart of the matter, the following article focuses on two exhibitions at the biennale. The first being City of Refuge III by Berlinde De Bruyckere, the other a group exhibition called From Ukraine: Dare to dream in a world of constant fear. Both of these events are so-called collateral events, or extra shows outside of the main exhibition area. One is situated in Venice’s many churches (the gondolier told me that they are 108 in total), the other takes place in one of Venice’s many Palazzos. Both of these exhibitions, similar to the rest of the Biennale, touch on the idea of shelter from different perspectives, oppressor vs. the oppressed. De Bruyckere’s show is impersonal, while the group show From Ukraine is personal. The artists in the group show are from countries and places where conflict is or has happened and have even experienced it firsthand. At the same time, De Bruyckere was born and raised in Gent, Belgium where she still lives and works. Therefore she is one of few artists from western Europe showcasing work at this year's Biennale (excluding the national pavilions). Both of the shows are site-specific and it is interesting to see how the works talk to the place, how histories intertwine.

Berlinde De Bruyckere: City of refuge III

On the island Isola San Giorgio Maggiore, south of the Arsenale, the collateral exhibition City of Refuge III by Berlinde De Bruyckere is showcased. It is situated in a church from the year 1566 that is named after the island, where Benedictine monks have had residency since the year 982. The title of the show comes from the song City of Refuge by Nick Cave and the Bad Seeds. The lyrics tell a story of a protagonist who encourages the listener to run to the city of refuge, as the city they are in is filled with blood. In the exhibition text it states that the San Giorgio church has always been a place of hospitality and refuge, referring to the exhibition title. But the title could also be referring to Venice itself, which started as a city state in 697 after people fled to the islands on the Venetian lagoon from Germanic persecution after the fall of the Roman Empire. For hundreds of years, Venice was a state where people fled to in search of a better life; a melting pot of culture and art, of defence and commerce. 

Back to the exhibition: when you walk into the church, dark beings welcome you, scattered in the church’s nooks. Big and ghastly; they tower over you, like frozen angels stuck between heaven and earth. The beings are covered in a thick, dark material and only their feet are visible, dangling lifeless from underneath the fabric. De Bruyckere calls the beings Archangeli which translates simply to archangels. Their bodies are made of wax, masked with animal hides also covered in wax so they appear stiff and frozen. Looming big beside the archangels are mirrors placed on tall scaffolding, slightly leaning towards you. You look at yourself as you look at the archangels.

 Berlinde De Bruyckere, City of Refuge III, (2024).

Berlinde De Bruyckere, City of Refuge III, (2024). Collateral Event of the 60th International Art Exhibition.

The exhibition continues in a monastery connected to the church, split into three rooms. In the first room, there are three stacks of wax covered cloth, animal hides, politely folded and stacked in piles. The piles simultaneously look soft and hard. In the next room, there are feet. Feet and shapeless beings made of wax stand upright in glass casings, like body parts in formalin in a lab. In the third room it feels as if the air is completely still. An altar-like sculpture is situated in the middle of the room and on top of it a body made of wax. The upper part of it is covered with an animal hide, like the archangels in the church. Only the feet are visible and the soles of the feet are upright, so it seems like a person laying on their stomach, a sacrifice. 

At the end of the hall, there is a space containing only two glass tables, filled with the artist's inspiration for the show. Magazine and newspaper cutouts, photographs, and various scraps of paper showing images of war. Bodies lying on a street, each covered by a white sheet. A photograph of Pietà by Michaelangelo lies next to a press photo of a mother holding her dead child in her arms. Harrowing collection of images that, in my opinion, are a necessary ending to the exhibition. By looking at them, the viewer is able to connect the real-life inspiration to De Bruyckere’s work. Looking at the images, I couldn't help but think of the people of Palestine, where their reality is the same as I saw in the photos and kept in the works in City of Refuge III. 

De Bruyckere is inspired by Flemish Renaissance and Christian iconography on life and death. She is an outsider looking in, a researcher of mythology. She weaves such themes together with modern motifs and social situations. In conversation with the church’s architecture, De Bruyckere manages to create a beautiful yet terrifying show where she herself becomes a foreigner.

 Berlinde De Bruyckere, City of Refuge III, (2024).

Berlinde De Bruyckere, City of Refuge III, (2024). Collateral Event of the 60th International Art Exhibition.

From Ukraine: Dare to Dream in a World of Constant Fear

In a different part of town, situated on the largest canal that streams through the island, straightforwardly named The Grand Canal, is a palazzo named Palazzo Contarini Polignac. The Palazzo was once owned by Princess Winnaretta Polignac (né. Singer), heiress to the Singer sewing machine empire. With her inheritance, she purchased the palazzo alongside her husband, the charming yet completely broke French prince, Edmond De Polignac. The palazzo became one of Europe's most sought out and important salons with guests like Pablo Picasso, Jean Cocteau and Claude Monet frequenting its halls.

Claude Monet.  The Palazzo Contarini, 1908.

Claude Monet, The Palazzo Contarini, (1908).

Today, the group show From Ukraine: Dare to Dream in a World of Constant Fear occupies the Palazzo. The show consists of 22 artists and art groups with works that tell stories of war, forced migration, the battle of the oppressed and the effects of climate change in warzones. In the text that accompanies the show, a question is asked “Can we imagine tomorrow? Do we have the courage to dream?” 

The palazzo is big and you have to thread through one gorgeous room after another. The works at the exhibition are beautiful and delicate, yet filled with sorrow. While I was looking at the artworks that were made in trauma and sadness, I couldn't help but imagine what happened in the rooms I was walking through. In a palazzo like Contarini Polignac, which has a long history of parties and love, a certain tension arises. Broken frescos and peeling paint told one story while the fight song Bella Ciao, which resonates from one room, tells another. On the second floor of the palazzo, in an adjoining room that resembles a chapel, six screens stand in various places. Each video shows a child sleeping, and one of them two children. They look like they are asleep, surrounded by the safety of their bed. The work is titled You Shouldn’t Have to See This by the artist duo Roman Khimei and Yarema Malashchuk. The videos are without sound and show Ukrainian children sleeping soundly in their own beds.

Since the beginning of the war between Ukraine and Russia in 2014, Russia has been deporting around 20.000 Ukrainian children to their own territories. The work You Shouldn’t Have to See This draws attention to this crime by showing Ukrainian children in their own beds. But a work like this shouldn't really exist. When you think about it, none of the works in the exhibition should exist, for they are born from war. But they do, and we have to deal with that somehow. Today, we are so desensitised towards images and videos of war, seeing them constantly when we open our social media on our phones - but have the privilege to turn it off and continue on with our day. Walking into the chapel-like room in Palazzo Polignac, and seeing the softness that lives within the work You Shouldn’t Have to See This, I simply felt sad.

You Shouldn't Have to See This, (2024) From Ukraine: Dare to Dream, Collateral Event of the 60th La Biennale di Venezia.

You Shouldn't Have to See This, (2024) From Ukraine: Dare to Dream, Collateral Event of the 60th La Biennale di Venezia.

At the biennale, history seems charged with a purpose. Venice is a melting pot of art and culture and in such a compressed soup of stories it is difficult to find a clean slate. The history of the artists presenting at the biennale continues to weave with the history of Venice until it becomes difficult to unravel the tapestry. Having the biennale in Venice, and to title this year's exhibition Foreigners Everywhere causes the show somehow to become stuck on the alienation of a group that it then confirms is true, a victim of its own ambition. 

At the same time, to experience the Venice Biennale that is loaded with heavy themes, as a privileged person from Northern Europe, I get the feeling that I am the foreigner and I am the one that is obsessed with the idea of “the other”. A similar reality exists in both shows, City of Refuge III and From Ukraine, albeit from completely different perspectives. Neither show touches upon my own reality, yet I connect deeper with the group show, as unlike Berlinde De Bruyckere, the artists presenting at the Palazzo Polignac manage to invoke a sense of hope. They confront us with humanity´s continuous persistence to fight, leaving me with a feeling of hope instead of guilt. 

You Shouldn't Have to See This, (2024) From Ukraine: Dare to Dream, Collateral Event of the 60th La Biennale di Venezia.

You Shouldn't Have to See This, (2024) From Ukraine: Dare to Dream, Collateral Event of the 60th La Biennale di Venezia.

This is the third article about the Venice Biennale where the main themes and ideas are explored, as well as the national pavilions, the uncertainty of current events and the main exhibition, Foreigners Everywhere which is curated by Adriano Pedrosa.

Newly graduated artists from Iceland University of the Arts and art theorists from The University of Iceland, interns situated in Venice, are currently working on articles and reports of key ideas and themes of current exhibitions of La Biennale. 

Ragnheiður Íris Ólafsdóttir, also known as Rírí, is a 23 year old artist from Reykjavík. Rírí graduated from the fine arts department of IUA in 2023 and has since then worked as an artist based in Reykjavík. 

Berlinde De Bruyckere. City of Refuge III (2024)

Berlinde De Bruyckere, City of Refuge III, (2024). Collateral Event of the 60th International Art Exhibition.

 Berlinde De Bruyckere, City of Refuge III, (2024).

Berlinde De Bruyckere, City of Refuge III, (2024). Collateral Event of the 60th International Art Exhibition.

 Berlinde De Bruyckere, City of Refuge III, (2024).

Berlinde De Bruyckere, City of Refuge III, (2024). Collateral Event of the 60th International Art Exhibition.

Claude Monet.  The Palazzo Contarini, 1908.

Claude Monet, The Palazzo Contarini, (1908).

You Shouldn't Have to See This, (2024) From Ukraine: Dare to Dream, Collateral Event of the 60th La Biennale di Venezia.

You Shouldn't Have to See This, (2024) From Ukraine: Dare to Dream, Collateral Event of the 60th La Biennale di Venezia.

You Shouldn't Have to See This, (2024) From Ukraine: Dare to Dream, Collateral Event of the 60th La Biennale di Venezia.

You Shouldn't Have to See This, (2024) From Ukraine: Dare to Dream, Collateral Event of the 60th La Biennale di Venezia.

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